A Study Into the Effect of Employment Conditions Upon Judicial Behavior and Performance


Bentley MacLeod
Sami Mnaymneh Professor of Economics and Professor of International and Public Affairs


In common-law jurisdictions, appellate judges construct legal rules over time by building on previous decisions, using the facts, reasoning, and outcomes described by previous judges to guide their rulings. In this scheme, high-quality appellate decision-making has beneficial spillovers by helping future judges make good decisions. As with all public officials, the performance of appellate judges will depend in part on their conditions of employment. Across the United States the rules for selecting, compensating, and retaining judges vary significantly by state, with no consensus on the best way forward. This research seeks to explore the importance of different judicial selection, compensation, and retention schemes by measuring the effects on judge performance of discrete changes in the rules defining these schemes.

To that end, the project will build a new data set on the employment rules for and performance of state appellate judges. This data set will include information from all state appellate court cases between 1947 and 1994. Changes in employment conditions that occur as the result of state legislation are used as "natural experiments" to tease out the relationships between employment rules and a variety of performance measures. Employment rules include judge salary, judge tenure status, judge retention processes, and length of term of office. Performance measures include number and length of opinions, the linguistic richness of opinions, the amount of research going into opinions, and the number of subsequent citations to opinions. Higher measurements on these variables reflect greater judge effort into writing opinions and likely greater influence on the development of the law.

Previous research into judicial performance has relied upon much shorter time periods, and hence could not exploit the natural variation in employment conditions. In this project, researchers observe how individual judges alter their behavior, and hence are able to track the causal impact of the employment rule changes.

This analysis can assist decision makers in crafting employment conditions that will allow for a more effective use of scarce public funds. Moreover, the rules for re-appointment rely upon different subjective measures of performance, and hence the project can provide insights into effective oversight of highly skilled employees, such as state appellate judges. More generally, the research will extend recent work in how incentive schemes can interact with intrinsic motivation or else distort allocation of effort across multiple professional tasks. For political economists, the results will be relevant to the study of the incentives in different electoral systems.

The project will result in an original data set on judge employment conditions and judge performance that will be made available to interested researchers. This data set, and the resulting papers, will be of interest not just to economists but to a broad array of social scientists, legal scholars, and policy analysts.